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The Contents of the Can – Looking at your Trash

contents of the dumpster
The Contents of the Can by Vago Damitio

When’s the last time that you actually took a few minutes at what is going into your garbage? Has it been a while since you looked? Do you imagine that since you haven’t looked that no one has looked? Well, unless you control every step of the trashing process from start to finish, you are wrong. Point blank. No doubt about it. And that’s not all, if you live in a modern country, then someone is making money off your garbage at various points down the line. If you live in a non modern country, then someone is probably using your garbage to some sort of profit somewhere down the line. This might all seem very strange and improbable to you, but, like the wise man said, ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ and this is no exception. Mankind has been making use of other people’s garbage for as long as mankind has been producing garbage.

If you would like to see an artistic representation of how Europeans have been living on each other’s garbage for centuries, you should probably have a look at the 2000 film Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse by French filmmaker Agnes Varda. Varda provides a fanciful, enjoyable, and accurate look at a variety of people from the past and present who have survived by eating and utilizing what other people have left behind as garbage. In the film, Varda shows us how people of old used to come in after the harvest and pick up the leftover bits that hadn’t made the cut.

Varda goes on to examine provisions in the French judicial system that provide for gleaners rights even today. She introduces a diverse cast of real people that exist on garbage left behind in fields, at markets, and in dumpsters. Varda also looks at art created from junk and a variety of other uses for cast off possessions. At one point, she even decides to keep a clock with no hands as ‘her kind of clock.’

Varda’s vision is bold, but it is not just the French who make use of other people’s trash. This morning as I was riding my bike, I passed two men loading a bookshelf into a truck from a pile that was waiting for the garbage truck. Less than a block further I saw an old woman picking aluminum cans and glass bottles from trash cans set to the curb. Finally, on the way home I saw a contractor sifting through a curbside pile of building materials left over from someone’s remodeling job of a condominium. This isn’t France, it is Honolulu, Hawaii and gleaning is as alive here as it is everywhere. I wasn’t looking for these people, it wasn’t unusual to see them, and it wasn’t a special garbage picking kind of day. The fact of the matter is, ‘there’s gold in them thar hills of garbage’.

A few nights ago, I saw a program on television about a company that goes to garbage dumps and picks up tires that have been thrown away. They take them to their warehouse, wash them, and sell them. This is their business! And then there are the people who collect trashed cellphones, computers, and televisions. They sell the serviceable parts on ebay and often sell the chips and lcd’s to specialized recyclers who recover actual gold from them, recycle it, and make jewelry. Did you know that there is actual gold in that pile of junk next to the curb? Not only that, but there is silver, platinum, copper, and other valuable materials in that junk too.

I’ve seen statistics that state that the commercial value of what Americans throw away is enough to feed, clothe, house, and pay for higher education for everyone in America! I would guess that the same could be said for many other countries. Think about it for a second. Most of what you consider to be garbage is actually valuable if you know how to recycle it. I have known several people that made excess of $100,000 in a year from junk! One guy made his fortune in Texas, picking up corporate refuse and selling it for scrap. In one case he picked up a load of ‘junk’ tools from a refinery that contained several specialized drill bits worth more than ten-grand each! My other friend picked up furniture from the side of the road (like the guys with the bookcase) for a year and then had a huge garage sale after fixing it up a bit. He made excess of $100,000 in a four day weekend!

So far, I have only talked about resale and recycling, but there is also plenty to eat in the garbage. In the year 2000, my friends at Café Anarchista in Eugene, Oregon gave away free coffee and donuts nearly every day! The donuts were put in the garbage every morning at Duncan Donuts. They may still be doing it. Duncan donuts is not the only food waster. Grocery stores, restaurants, and individuals throw out tons of food every day. The organization Food Not Bombs uses this ‘refuse’ to feed the homeless and the hungry throughout the world. They have been doing this for over twenty-six years and are one of the fastest growing organizations in the world. In times of emergency and crisis, Food Not Bombs is often one of the first organizations to provide hot, healthy food to those who need it. Food that otherwise would be trash!!

Take a look at your garbage. Are you sure you want to throw that away? Wouldn’t you rather not be a part of the incredible waste problems that the world faces? One thing you can be sure of…if you don’t look at your garbage, someone else will. It might even be me.

(This article was written in 2008 in Honolulu Hawaii and first published on ChrisDamitio.com)